Make Friends With Silence

June 28, 2012
June 28, 2012 Lindsay Tighe

Make Friends With Silence

In our training, we share the idea that ‘making friends with silence’ is a good thing to do when it comes to being a Better Questioner. In a nutshell, our advice is that if you ‘shut up’ there is a good chance that the person speaking gets to share more of their ideas that magically pop out of their head when they are given permission to keep speaking. Sadly, most people are busy responding and start talking too quickly which means the other person’s thoughts and ideas are frequently lost.

Interestingly, whilst the advice is easy to do and simple, I find that some people still have a reluctance to do it in practice. It seems that human beings are hard-wired to fear those awkward silence moments and so when we suggest that we should make friends with them, some internal resistance, not surprisingly, comes up. Having said that, when people do give it a go in practice, they invariably are quite astounded at how the person talking starts talking again and also that it often leads to more thoughts being shared that lead to there being better outcomes.

In practical terms, I think it is important to reassure you that when I talk about ‘making friends with silence’ (or I sometimes say ‘holding the silence’) generally speaking it only has to be held for 1 or 2 seconds and that is long enough for the other person to take the cue that it is still their turn to talk. It is important to look for nonverbal clues when you are deciding how long a silence to leave as often you can tell that the person is still thinking or processing an answer by their posture and facial expressions. This sometimes means that you may choose to ‘hold the silence’ for longer, and indeed one of my colleagues once recalls doing so for a good 30-40 seconds in the knowledge that the person needs that space to be able to fully process their thoughts and answer the question she had just asked.

It is important that whilst ‘holding the silence’ that you maintain the right amount of focus and attention on the other person which means you are conscious of your own facial expression and body language. The best description as to what this should look like is to look ‘expectantly’, in other words, you are waiting for them to start speaking again but no words actually come out of your mouth. The danger with speaking is that you risk breaking their thought patterns which can be dangerous because those thoughts may then be lost.

I do want to emphasize that you don’t need to ‘hold the silence’ after every question you ask. Invariably there will be questions you ask, particularly those that are fact-gathering questions, where there is only a limited answer that they can give you. For example, if you ask the person about who else they have in their family, pausing and offering silence is not going to offer up more information, so in this instance don’t use it. However, if you are asking questions that are thought-provoking and idea-generating then using the technique is very powerful. Indeed, when I have had had the silence held for me I have been quite astounded at what amazing ideas have come out of my mouth that I didn’t even know that I had in me! The ideas only flowed because the other person I was talking with shut up!

So I hope that I have inspired you to not only want to make friends with silence but also give you some ideas as to how to use this skill well in practice. I am confident that the more that you use it, the more inspired you will become as to how powerful it can be to enable you to be a Potentialiser and release the amazingness in other people.